“Tomorrowland” Review

The overall message of Tomorrowland is that it’s easy to tear down, but more impressive to build something in its place. If only the movie could take its own advice about trying to look forward to a brighter future. Rather than actually build, we hear an awful lot about how hard it is to build with a culture of doom and gloom. It’s important to discuss problems, but it’s hard to be optimistic for a future when we spend so much time drowning in a future that is grim and dark. Keep in mind that this was intended as a family picture with futuristic robots and gadgets.

The perfect question for this movie is asked by a plucky young inventor in the first few minutes. After his idea for a jetpack is shot down for not having a practical use for the betterment of humanity, he asks “why can’t it just be fun?” I wanted Tomorrowland to be fun and it had every opportunity to be such a picture. Director Brad Bird certainly has an eye for staging action sequences with real thrill and excitement. His influence is indeed present with such incredible scenes as a laser-gun shootout in a geeky merchandise shop and an intense escape from a futuristic house being attacked by androids. All of that is pure fun. What drags it all down is a script by Damon Lindelof which actually stops the movie for a rather long rant about humanity being terrible for desiring destruction.

The movie exists in three timelines. The 1954 World’s Fair presents a glowing reveals a glowing vision of the future. The present day features a declining of faith in humanity. The future is a post-apocalyptic wasteland where a few bits of future-tech survive in the gloomy setting. For most of the picture, we follow the plucky Casey (Britt Robertson) in the present as the daughter of an engineer who is smart enough to sneak into a NASA launch pad and sabotage its dismantling. She still believes she can do some good in a world that seems obsessed with doom and gloom as her teachers drone on endlessly about 1984 and the incurable effects of global warming. Her ingenuity is what makes her a target of great interest for preventing mankind’s own destruction.

But Earth’s destruction is never directly addressed with a cause. It just seems to happen – presumably from a combination of nukes, global warming and environmental mistakes. But how do you stop it? It’s not so much about the specifics – you just have to want to change first. It inflates the baby steps of wanting to better the planet and its future. Now, granted, this is a logical path for a family picture meant to inspire the young ones to be bolder and pursue world-changing paths. But it’s tough to embrace that message when it’s presented so bluntly amid such a bleak plot. By comparison, Wall-E was incredibly subtle with its message about consumerism.

When Tomorrowland isn’t trying to beat you over the head with scary futures, there is a genuine sense of adventure. Casey has an amazing experience when she discovers a hologram vision of the wondrous future with jetpacks and robots litter a lavishly designed city of tomorrow. When she seeks the help of Tomorrowland member Frank (George Clooney), the angry old man shows off with all his dynamic tricks of hidden tech in the modern age for getting back to the future. Doc Brown’s DeLorean doesn’t have anything on a time-traveling pod that launches from the Eiffel Tower. And any scene where they flee the human-disintegrating androids with those artificial smiles has a nail-biting level of action.

But for every scene that has some sense of fun and excitement, it follows with another that is either too preachy or too blunt. The villain of the picture is the cold David Nix (Hugh Laurie), the leader of Tomorrowland who doesn’t want to destroy the world – merely believing it cannot and should not be saved. But when Casey disagrees, the future flickers to a better tomorrow. And as if that weren’t blunt enough, the ending is so forced and ridiculous that it could have doubled as the ad for a community college.

Tomorrowland has some segments of a great adventure, but it’s muddied up by a poor script. While its heart is in the right place, the movie just can’t bring itself to be entertainment before a message movie. I want to be there for this picture as it carries a much needed boost of optimism for a generation that could seriously use it. But rather than offer an inspirational allegory, it wallows too much in its horrifying omens that its ultimate message of  “go out and find answers” just doesn’t feel fulfilling. The special effects don’t have any strings, but the script certainly does the way it binds under its own unconvincing nature. The goal of the picture is that it ultimately wants the adults of tomorrow to become the innovators of today. Hopefully it will inspire a few filmmakers to make a better science fiction picture that can push through a message without the force of a wreaking ball.

“Robot Carnival” (Discotek Release) Review

Robot Carnival acts as a deluxe sampler for the best of Japanese animation. Developed by some of the freshest talent of the late-80’s – most being animators just starting to direct – it’s an anthology film with shorts centering around robots. Some are humanoid androids that interact with humans on dates. Some are human-controlled giants that do battle. And, in the case of the opening titles, some are in giant collectives that plow through towns to announce a movie.

What I found most unique was how Katsuhiro Otomo – one of the most notable names of his anime for directing the landmark animation AKIRA – saddles himself with directing the opening and ending credit sequences. He transforms the title of the movie into a grand machine that roams the lands with an arsenal of robots and explosions. As one of his early animation directing projects, you see his style take shape that would lay the groundwork for his anime future animated features of epic carnage. A robot orchestra provides the soundtrack with musical instruments – the trumpets shooting exploding rockets. A gaggle of robotic ballerinas twirl and descend to the ground where they bow to the populace before exploding. It’s strangely detailed and hauntingly amusing as per Otomo’s trademark style for violence. And that’s just the bookend segments.

Koji Morimoto, an animator who would later work with Otomo as well, takes a stab at robotizing the classic monster story of Frankenstein with “Franken’s Gears”. Through the power of lightning, a mad scientist brings his robotic creation to life with a result both tragic and hilarious. Hidetoshi Omori directs “Deprive”, a heroic tale of one android trying to save his human counterpart from an alien invasion. It’s a decent tale of rescuing the girl with a Terminator-style twist, but it’s more admirable for boiling down its story into a few short minutes. It hits all the right beats for just long enough as not to bore those who have seen this story before.

One element I haven’t mentioned yet is that most of these shorts have zero dialogue. One of the first to actually have some speaking roles is “Presence”, a period romance of a man trying to build female robot to escape his wife and family. And even though there is some dialogue, director Yasuomi Umetsu thankfully doesn’t rely on it as he keeps the short more visual than expositional. This is also a blessing for the sake of the English dub script and voices which are surprisingly lackluster for being produced by Streamline Pictures way back in the early 90’s. You can see this at its worst in the most dialogue-heavy short “A Tale of Two Robots” which adds in too much for the English script. There might be some vindictiveness given how the short appears as World War 2 propaganda with the Japanese and English facing off in a 19th century setting with rickety giant robots. Despite the national leaning, it is rather hilarious for its limitations of technology, the amusing English dialogue recorded in Japanese and that this short is staged as third part of a trilogy that does not exist.

There are some more light and artistic additions as well in the form of “Cloud”, Mao Lambo’s segment about a robot walking through time to eventually become a real human. It’s beautifully rendered the way the rise and fall of humanity is portrayed through flowing clouds. This is a sweet and somber short that helps break up the frenetic energy of other shorts.

The most stereotypically 80’s of all the shorts would be “Star Light Angel” (even the title sounds very 80’s). A teenage girl after recently experiencing a breakup finds herself getting lost in an amusement park where a robot employee begins falling in love with her. Complete with laser-light shows and bright neon colors, I can’t think of any other Japanese animation that encapsulates the decade so perfectly with its bubblegum tone of a music video. There’s even a shameless plug for Coke included which could only be more 80’s if Max Headroom was drinking it.

Last and certainly not least is “Nightmare”, a post-apocalyptic vision of the future where robots rule and one drunken human finds himself escaping death. There’s a tremendous amount of inspiration from the likes of Fantasia and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s the most noteworthy of the batch not just for its stunningly intricate animation, but for touching on serious tones of robotization in a playful manner. This is perhaps one of the most defining aspects of anime that can achieve a thoughtfulness to darker subjects and find a way to transform them into unique works of art.

As far as anthology films go, Robot Carnival offers a lot of bang for the buck with a large number of shorts from tremendously talented artists. There are so many styles and tones present that there’s a little something for anyone seeking an animated sci-fi experience. With its operatic presentation and breathtaking animation, it’s the anime equal of Fantasia. And I’m aware that’s a lofty mantle to bestow, but it’s deservingly so as a unique experiment and a springboard for the talented anime directors of the 1990’s.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” Review

As the grand finale to Marvel’s second phase of their cinematic universe, the Avengers sequel aims to cram as much content as it can to deliver the biggest of bangs. But even at two and a half hours, it’s a picture that feels very cramped for all that it wedges into the script. There’s too many heroes, villains and murderous robots on screen that it becomes a rather complicated juggling act for writer/director Joss Whedon. The good news is that Whedon not only manages to maintain a certain level of balance, but also delivers more character development than I would expect for a superhero ensemble picture.

The Avengers have assembled once more with every returning character accounted for. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) continues to helm the tech of Iron Man, now more fearful of alien invasions from his previous Avengers mission. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as Captain America maintains his noble spirit after dealing with the corruption of SHIELD. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is just sort of there as the dimensional-traveling warrior, wielding his magic hammer and blithering on about prophecies in his poetic talk. They all carry a little something with them from their previous movies, but it’s the characters without their continuing series that take a bigger chunk of the screen time (and for good reason). Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has developed a relationship with Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), but they’re both frightened of each other and worry about their relationship. But it’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who steals the movie this time as the slick-talking archer who gets the best lines and most unique life outside saving the world.

On their latest adventure, the group finds themselves combating the evil robot Ultron (voiced by James Spader) that wants to destroy humanity after Stark programmed him to protect it. Though relegated to just a voice, the motion capture performance of Ultron showcases him as more expressive than your usual movie robot bent on destroying planet Earth. This brings about a surprising amount of personality and charisma to a walking, talking machine that wants to kill us all. His philosophy is rather base given how often he talks about it and his method for wiping out the human race is pretty standard. All that intelligence and character ultimately leads to his master plan of chucking a rock at the Earth. Additionally, he build an army of robots to defend his project and give all our heroes something to hit.

In between this simple plot of murderous robots, several new characters and plot lines are introduced. We’re introduced to the Maximoff twins as escaped experiments of HYDRA – known from the comics as Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – acting as ambiguous superheroes choosing sides. Though they were technically mutants (children of Magneto), there’s not mutants to turn to in this universe so they find themselves very cautious of who to trust. There’s the introduction of Vision (Paul Bettany), Stark’s computer program turned 90’s-looking superhero with the classic cape and painted face. There’s a hefty supply of Easter eggs wedged inside the script in the form of future villains (Andy Serkis as The Claw) and artifacts still on the self (the Infinity Gems to be used by Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet). And let’s not forget a seemingly endless stream of secondary characters the pop up from Nick Fury to War Machine to Falcon and so on. The only character who seems curiously absent is Loki. He wouldn’t add much of anything to the picture, but at least he would give Thor a little something more to do.

Even with a massive running time, the movie just doesn’t have a lot of time to explore all these areas in between the action. Whereas the first Avengers movie found enough in the script for every character to be involved, the expanded cast makes this picture far too crowded. There are a handful of scenes where Whedon relies far too heavily on exposition dialogue to drive the plot rather than visuals. If the Maximoff twins have a tragic past, why not show those evnets? If the people of New York are angered by the actions of the Avengers, why not give us that scene rather than hear a verbal report?

Several characters are shoved into a corner for many scenes simply because we don’t have time for them. Thankfully, the characters we do focus on the most have engaging arcs and are a thrill to follow. The complicated romance of Black Widow/Hulk and the secret life of Hawkeye are far more interesting than Captain America’s distrust of national security or Iron Man’s concerns for intergalactic insecurity. The big names have had their movies and politely step aside for most of this picture.

As expected for a $200 million picture, the action sequences are loud, detailed and gorgeous. Shot around the world, Whedon picks some great locations for a battle with Hydra or an Iron Man versus Hulk duel. And while he does go for the big moments of destroying buildings and smashing cities, there’s still a sense of heroism and consequence. While Iron Man and the Hulk end up causing a massive amount of damage to an African city, the movie doesn’t shy away from the folly of their ways. There’s still a level of distrust the public has after the events in New York City from the previous big battle. But the Avengers aim to do better with more scenes of them saving those caught in the crossfire from a family in a crumbling villain to a woman’s car toppling off a cliff. It’s a pleasant reminder that these superheroes are more than just powerful warriors that smash bad guys and blow stuff up.

While Avengers: Age of Ultron is rather overstuffed, it still manages to be a solid followup. The character chemistry is all still present and the villains have some wit and grit. Despite the laundry list of developing content to keep these Marvel movies more as serials, it doesn’t take away from being able to enjoy the movie on its own. You don’t have to know all about Thanos, the Infinity Stones, the activities of SHILED or the secret operations of HYDRA to have a great time with the picture. It certainly adds to the enjoyment, but it’s not a requirement.

“Chappie” Review

Director Neil Blomkamp seem to be stuck in a time loop. While he initially displayed fresh talent with his 2009 sci-fi hit District 9, he fumbled with Elysium in 2013. Both movies took place in South Africa though Elysium was much more heavy-handed with its blunt message of a corrupt future. I was willing to write that picture off as studio meddling given the increased budget along with bigger names in the cast. Even Blomkamp admits that film was a misfires. And now I find myself regretting such forgiveness with Blomkamp’s Chappie, yet another blunt allegory taking place in South Africa. You fooled me once, Neil.

In this version of South Africa, robot policemen have been implemented to control the crime of Johannesburg. The robots are pre-programmed thanks to the coding of Deon (Dev Patel), but frowned upon by military developer Vincent (Hugh Jackman) who would rather have the machines be controlled by human beings ala drones. While Vincent’s concerns are more than valid, he’s the bad guy in all this in that he wants bigger robots. Deon, by comparison, is a kinder soul favoring artificial intelligence over weapons. He finally creates an A.I. which he considers a big achievement while the brass won’t even humor his experiment. Deciding to proceed without them, Deon swipes one of the robot cops to upload his new creation of life. The problem is that Deon only does so under the threat of criminal Ninja and Yolandi (the South African rappers playing more-or-less themselves). They want the robot to help them commit crimes. Deon just wants him to exist.

When the artificial intelligence dubbed Chappie (Sharlto Copley) finally comes to life, he acts as a curious and frightened child. He takes his first steps, learns to recognize objects, starts to speak English and familiar himself with his new family at a progressive rate. At first, Chappie is a cute character that is lovable in the way he reacts with enthusiasm for painting a picture and fear after being damaged. But rather than bring Chappie to a unique level of intelligence and deciding what to do with the gift of life, he’s stuck on cliché route of trying to do good in a world where he doesn’t understand humans. And if the plot replication of Pinocchio wasn’t clear from the first appearance of Chappie, it’s smashed into the brain of every viewer by him reading the actual book.

What starts out with promise quickly turns into an irritating experience. Chappie is likable with childish ways of learning about life, but grates on the nerves as he continues to act cute and mimic the mannerisms of a gangster. Ninja and Yolandi have a decent dynamic and dilemma, but there was only so much I could take of Ninja’s street accent and Yolandi’s squeaky baby voice. Deon does little more than try to teach with his engineering mindset, Vincent just growls at those who despise his giant robot and Sigourney Weaver is just sort of there as the boss of the technology company.

By the time Chappie arrives at the third act, the script grows desperate with trying to turn Chappie into a real boy. Out of seemingly nowhere, Chappie somehow gains the ability to transfer the coding of the human brain into robots. That’s a rather big jump for a robot that went from giddily reading children’s book to writing advanced programming on the most mysterious human organ. And what he does with this newly acquired knowledge in the climax becomes almost laughable for how off-the-rails the story warps to fit its own narrative.

I would mention how fantastic the special effects are at displaying the title character, but does that even mean anything for being so seamless? Computer graphics have advanced to the point where we can have any creature of any texture appear on-screen as a believable character. There’s rarely a moment where you don’t believe you are watching a real robot walk, talk and interact with the human cast. But so what? It’s not like this is outside Blomkamp’s visual focus in how every film he’s done features a robot at some point. He’s perfected the art of directing a CGI robot in a live-action picture. So why not give us a story with surprise and characters that are not ripped from a cookie-cutter template?

Chappie may have some heart, but it needs a massive upgrade of ideas and originality. Neil Blomkamp borrows from the likes of Short Circuit and Robocop quite liberally that it made me wonder if he actually had a script or just a cobbling of visual ideas he wanted to see materialize. During the climax, Chappie does battle with a giant robot that looks almost exactly like ED-209 from Robocop – it even moves in the same jerky way. Throughout the picture, I was never all that interested in Chappie becoming a real boy. I was more concerned if Blomkamp will become a real director of hard science fiction.

“Ex Machina” Review

There’s a strange gentleness and a warmth to something as dark and unsettling as Ex Machina. A man sits behind glass and watches as a female robot cautiously enters into the room. She sits down and talks to the man with a curiously inquisitive nature. It’s one of many moments in this little sci-fi picture that feels like a breath of fresh air in its ambiance and script that challenges the viewer more than it does the special effects budget.

The plucky young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen by his search engine company to be one of the few to visit its CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). He’s flown out to Nathan’s secluded mansion deep within the jungle and located underground. Once he passes through the security, Nathan’s home is quite cozy and uniquely designed with just enough room for his science lab. It’s a stylish interior, but it becomes apparent to Caleb after spending a few days with Nathan that the isolation has taken its toll. Nathan places words in Caleb’s mouth as if it were a conversation with a biographical ghostwriter.

But Caleb wasn’t just invited out to the secret hideaway for booze and dancing (as Nathan prefers). Believing that he is on the cusp of perfecting the world’s first artificially intelligent robot, Nathan sets up interview sessions with Caleb and the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander). With her flesh face and transparent circuitry, she cautiously enters a room and sits down to talk with Caleb behind glass. Tasked with finding flaws in the creation, Caleb treads lightly through his conversations with Ava. He asks questions that challenge her own originality which in turn makes her question Caleb. But there’s something more sinister to Ava’s conception and her developing thoughts that she only shares with Caleb. And with Nathan being both aloof and a drunk, there’s nowhere safe in this trap of an experiment.

Through its simple premise with a likely conclusion, Ex Machina leaves itself plenty of time to ask the big questions and challenge perceptions. Caleb’s sessions with Ava are intelligent and thought-provoking the way both attempt to probe each other. There are no stupid questions or answers such as “can you love?” and “what is love?” The subject of romance is approached maturely as when Caleb asks where Ava would like to go on a date if she were let loose in society. She remarks that she’d like to visit a traffic intersection to observe the behaviors of passing patrons. Sitting for hours watching people go about their lives is of endless fascination to Ava. Whereas others just see a common presence of a city, Ava spots a playground of psychology.

This is what makes Ex Machina such a brilliant piece of science fiction. It finds the perfect moments of beauty, intelligence and fear in a story of isolated frustration among technological breakthrough. Writer/director Alex Garland is able to both craft and express these ideas with real tone and atmosphere that rewards the viewer who wants more. I’ve seen movies where computer-generated robots smash through glass or crush cars like tin cans. Rarely do I ever see a film so decadent in its special effects and uses them to tell a human story with real character. Only after its slow-burn of unease does the climactic showdown actually have weight and substance. It feels good to finally be writing about a science fiction film like this that doesn’t feel the need to dip its toes too deep into the realm action.

Ex Machina is that infatuating bit of hard science fiction which begs for repeat viewings. It’s smart without being dry and thrilling without being simple. Everything about this film – from design to script – is intelligently crafted with an amazing atmosphere of innocence and tension. This is an exceptional purchase without question. It’s one that I’ll certainly be coming back to again and again, stacked close to my copy of Blade Runner and Dark City.

“Extraterrestrial” (2014) Review

Movie aliens tend to greet Earthlings with either open arms or open mouths. If they’re not trying to meet, they want to eat. Or, in the case of District 9 or E.T., gas up and go home. The purpose of the uninspired greys from indie horror Extraterrestrial appear rather confusing. It’s pretty clear from the horror leanings that these beings do indeed want to slaughter humans, but for what gain? Whereas other movie aliens seem to have a goal in mind during their visit, these creatures appear more confused about what they want to do with their human subjects. They spent all this time trying to get to Earth and must have just forgot about what they came here to do in the first place.

But this isn’t so much a sci-fi picture as it is your a-typical teens in the woods picture. It’s your standard template with the exception of an alien race written in as the creature of the feature. College kids venture to a cabin in the middle of crazy country so they can party and get stoned. Should we expect anything less? None of them are all that unique or interesting, fulfilling basic horror movie archetypes. One of them has a breakup, one of them is a party animal, one of them is crazy about discoveries and there’s the obligatory handheld camera floating about to wedge in that style as well. Michael Ironside pops up as the local weed farmer of the area, but he’s a wasted bore even as a conspiracy theory hermit.

Then our group of youngsters encounter a downed UFO they find in the woods. Of all the spaceships I’ve seen in movies over the years, Extraterrestrial has one of the least inspired designs. It’s the old-fashioned spinning saucer with too many lights and too little detail. The freaked out teens soon return to the cabin and the aliens begin to terrorize them. Keeping with the style of the UFO, the aliens are your stereotypical greys. They’re big, lanky, grey and have big eyes. The only thing about these aliens that doesn’t feel conventional is their motive in that they don’t actually have one.

The aliens are kept mostly aloof at first with a developing mystery about their presence. A cop investigates the region with claims of abducted individuals and mutilated cows. What exactly do these aliens want? At first, it seems they just want to abduct humans for some sort of experiment. But their experiment appears more like a confusing process than a calculated means of study. One unlucky victim finds himself abducted into the alien ship with half his arm as he handcuffed himself to a tree to be spared. Onboard, the victim is tortured and probed by a robot until he dies via a probe into his butt. Either there’s some intricate method to these alien plans that human just cannot fathom or these aliens are just screwing with us for the heck of it. I’m inclined to believe the latter since the aliens also perform some confusing kills in the way they grab faces and use ESP to force their victims into suicide.

Right up to the very last scene, which has one of the most nonsensical left-field endings of any horror picture, you’ll be scratching your head in confusion and anger. There is no point, plot or pleasing element to Extraterrestrial. It just wants to stage standard horror with aliens and doesn’t want to write anything interesting around that premise. Director Colin Minihan and writers The Vicious Brothers don’t want to give you anything to think about in an alien horror picture. They believe all the viewer needs to be satisfied with such an experience is a death by anal probe.

Extraterrestrial offers nothing more than typical aliens and mild terror, refusing to let either mix properly. Whatever intricate tale The Vicious Brothers were trying to weave with this film is drowned by too many tropes and nonsense kills that mean nothing. If Cabin in the Woods finally put down the college student slasher genre, Extraterrestrial just gives up and commits suicide the way it just throws random violence and spectacle at the screen. Maybe some aliens can abduct this film and use their superior minds to decipher just what director Colin Minihan was thinking when he made this mess.

“Space Station 76” Review

The awkward indie comedy scene need not be relegated to the hipster landscape. ‘Space Station 76’ defies that sub-genre by injecting a similar writing tone into the setting of an isolated space satellite, ala ‘Space: 1999’. Rather than filling this retro vision of the future with stock characters constantly flipping switches and speaking technobabble, this is a collective of bitter and tired people bred from the sterile and lonely environment they occupy. It’s that harsh light of insecure reality shining down an otherwise whimsical location which gives the film its very weird and watchable charm.

Introduced into the hive of silent turmoil is the new co-pilot Jessica (Liv Tyler), a genuinely sweet personality that does her best to make friends on the station. She tries to maintain the station’s safety, but the drunken Captain Glenn (Patrick Wilson) dismisses her words as he struggles to deal with his closet homosexuality. She does seek some kinship with residents Ken and his daughter Sunshine, but is viciously despised by Ken’s drugged up wife Misty. While the trio of good-natured individuals struggle to keep a stiff upper lift, the adulterers of the station battle their own personal demons through drinks, smokes and robot-operated psychiatry. They hate their jobs, their relationships and the lives they find themselves saddled with out in space.

This is the type of film that sort of catches you off guard luring you in for what may seem like a campy satire of  ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that ends up being a rather peculiar dramedy. You can feel seething hatred and jealousy emitting from this group within the hospital-style interiors.  Even within the characters that seem more pure like Ted, there is an almost haunting presence of temptation. He looks out into space and fantasizes about a naked woman within a star. Sunshine discovers a pornographic magazine in her parent’s dresser and begins to have doubts about her body. These scenes may make the film seem like a depressing journey, but I found it more intriguing for the fact that in a wondrous future people still have the same social problems. A space station free of alien monsters and looming intergalactic threats breeds its own difficulties. It doesn’t help that the robot they all rely on for psychiatric help is only programmed to respond to certain key words and doesn’t actually help them.

With so much vitriol, it doesn’t seem like the best idea for a comedy. In fact, it’s almost hatable for the first act. There are some redeeming factors that prevents it from being completely soulless as with Sunshine’s anti-gravity game in which her dad cheers her on as she float around the room. And the inevitable climax which could’ve easily taken a disastrous turn winds up being a more touching ending that brings the characters back to what’s really important. This is a very strange type of genre blending that I can’t exactly say I loved, but didn’t really despise all that much either. I got a few laughs even though it was mostly that awkward kind of amusement that comes from dark improv. I had some fun following these flawed characters even though most of their issues seem to pile up too quickly. The real deal breaker for me were the special effects and set design of a space station that embodies the 1970’s era. Popped collars, brown wallpaper and Beta tapes litter the halls of a very familiar looking design for a livable space environment. It’s those moments that give the film its true edge of speculating a future with more advancements in everything except people.

“Edge of Tomorrow” Review

You may have missed this film at the theater because it had such a generic title: ‘Edge of Tomorrow’. Now on home video its been given the title ‘Live Die Repeat’ with the subtitle ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ in the corner of the cover. Well, that’s a slightly better title and at least superior to its novel source entitled ‘All You Need Is Kill’. Well you can call this film anything you like, but I call it one of the best films sci-fi films I’ve seen all year.

Tom Cruise plays a Major who is demoted down to a grunt for a D-day style offensive against an invading alien force known as Mimics. Cruise is killed minutes within the battle, but not before getting some nasty alien blood into his system. The blood of these aliens has time-travel abilities which ends up sending back to relive the same battle again. He’s sent into combat again, dies again and the whole thing starts all over again, hence the title. Think of it as a science-fiction version of ‘Groundhog Day’. The only one who believes what Cruise is going through is Emily Blunt’s character, a veteran soldier who has had the same experience. She’s aware that the only way to stop the cycle is to either get a blood transfusion or kill the hive mind of the aliens. And since Cruise seems doomed to die in this alien war, the latter is a much more tantalizing goal.

Just like ‘Groundhog Day’, ‘Live Die Repeat’ makes great use of the repeating day concept to be both clever and amusing. Not-so-typical for Tom Cruise’s usual characters, he doesn’t play an action hero from the start. In fact he makes several mistakes that result in multiple deaths until he finally trains enough to become a more efficient soldier. When he does, there’s an undeniable charm to the way he strolls through key events as a psychic who seems to know everything about everyone from the accumulated knowledge. It’s also just as hilarious to watch him fail each time. One of the funniest montages involves his training scenes with Emily Blunt where any serious injuries incurred by Cruise’s character results in her murdering him to reset the day once more. There are several great moments where Cruise tries to walk off his injuries claiming its not that bad only to be shot by Blunt and start all over.

As much as it is a tongue-in-cheek comedy, it also succeeds at being a sci-fi/action blockbuster with brains. The mystery behind the invading alien creatures is just as intriguing as their designs. The closest thing I can relate them to are like rabid starfishes able to change their shape and attack multiple targets. Once Cruise and Blunt finally form a solution, they carry out their plan of attack with incredible efficiency and tact in sensational action sequences.

Director Doug Liman completely delivers on a film that’s goes above and beyond the expectations. The action sequences are well-shot with some rather some impressive computer graphics given the abundance. You’d think that a film repeating key scenes over and over would grow dull, but the it’s edited tightly enough to keep the energy and drive of the picture going. I had a lot of fun watching this film trying to decipher the Mimics and watching Cruise learn from his deadly mistakes. This is a film I’m going to be going watching multiple times in the future just to see if I can see something new each time. Needless to say, it’s a definite buy.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” Review

The ‘X-Men’ are easily one of the most intriguing and interesting superhero teams in comic book history. It’s been a long time since those awesome stories have actually resonated on the big screen. The franchise over the last four years has gone downhill into routine action shlock. Thankfully, Brian Singer has returned to deliver one of the best ‘X-Men’ movies ever made based on one of the most memorable stories. You know how some comic book fans will often talk about their favorite sagas and how those would make the best films, but would probably be muddled in production? This is the first comic book film to finally get the formula right and it’s a more than welcome presence for the genre.

The future for the ‘X-Men’ is a dark and depressing time as mutants are hunted down and murdered by the robotic Sentinels. Able to adapt to any superpower and outnumber their opposition in numbers, the few remaining mutants struggle to hide and survive. Notable regulars Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Kitty Pride (Ellen Paige) are a few of the remaining mutants from the old guard. Their last hope is to travel back in time and undo the events that led to this dismal state.

Using Kitty Pride’s unique time-traveling ability, Wolverine is sent back to 1973 to undo the crucial moment in history that set off a horrific chain reaction. The Sentinels were developed by Trask (Peter Dinklage), but did not receive the proper funding and attention until Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) murders the President of the United States. To prevent this assassination, Wolverine rounds up the old gang that includes Xavier, Beast, Magneto and Quicksilver for a brief prison break of Magneto. At the same time while Wolverine is desperately trying to change history, his friends in the future are tragically trying to keep him in the past before the Sentinels end them all.

Explaining to everyone in the past what will happen in the future is easy for Wolverine. The tough part is attempting to change the minds of those who act on their fears to prevent catastrophe. Xavier has shut himself off from his telepathic abilities, Beast is ashamed of his abilities, Mystique is entirely driven by revenge and Magneto seems to think he can handle all of this with no regard for others. Therein lies the challenge not just for Wolverine, but for all the characters to grow as better or worse individuals who will shape the world with their actions. So, essentially, it’s Back to the Future with much more epic consequences.

This is the first ‘X-Men’ film Bryan Singer has directed in at least a decade. His last film was ‘X-2: X-Men United’, the only ‘X-Men’ film I actually enjoyed. Now he’s blown the rest of the franchise away with this pitch-perfect direction of the classic comic arc. What makes his effort so different and so effective is how much Singer holds back. He never inserts more mutants or action sequences than what is needed to make the film work.

Early in the film, Mystique saves a group of mutant soldiers from being experimented on by Trask Industries. I was almost positive these mutants were going to be thrown into a large scale sequence later on. To my surprise, they serve their purpose of just establishing the climate of mutants for this era. The final confrontation of the film is the showdown we were prompted for, but it’s a rather genius scene for how Magneto plans to be the victor. He traps the area of the White House by lifting a sports stadium to create a perimeter. It’s a smart use of his mutant powers and still manages to feel epic in scale. It’s a far cry from when Magneto moved the Golden Gate bridge for the silliest of reasons.

Quicksilver, despite his short appearance, manages to steal the show with his comical personality and speedy displays. The scene where he disables a room full of security guards from shooting down our heroes is both stunning, clever and a whole lot of fun. He’s much needed smile in a story that’s mostly gloom and doom. Also, if you’re familiar with Quicksilver’s family ties, there’s a brilliant little easter egg in the dialogue.

While there are a handful of fight scenes, hardly any of them felt pointless or drawn out. It helps that there was a main goal for which all these characters were fighting towards so that everything is kept in focus. Mystique, for how many fights she gets into, isn’t just being an atypical villain. Her mission is clear and she wastes no time saving her kind and wiping out the threats. It’s that added depth to the characters and their plight that makes the fights that much more entertaining.

What I love so much about Singer’s script is that he manages to maintain the overall story of the original content, but still make it balanced and work within a movie. By focussing the movie entirely on Wolverine, Xavier, Beast, Magneto, Mystique and Trask, we’re given plenty of opportunity to explore these characters and their ambitions. Trask, in particular, managed to be one of the most unique villains I’ve seen in a comic book movie for how three-dimensionally defined he ended up being. The man doesn’t really want to kill all mutants for revenge, but has a genuine desire for safety and the study of mutants. He’s a villain who truly doesn’t see himself as one at all.

With a story that jumps between two timelines, it seems like it would be easy to get lost. But the script manages to keep things leveled and focussed while at the same time not wasting a moment. That’s a rather impressive for a film with so many characters, even if only a handful get the most screentime. But even the primary characters never felt overused. With Wolverine being the one sent back in time to save the future, you’d think he took center stage. To my delighted surprise, he really only serves his purpose for setting the plans in motion and then literally leaves the stage.

While the plot is perfectly conceived for a time travel film, it’s the characters that really give the movie such value. We’re given a small group of characters that we can follow and understand rather than just a smattering of simple heroes as previous ‘X-Men’ films tended to be. Sure, we are still introduced to a large collective of mutants, but most of them only fulfill their purpose for the establishing environment, tone and urgency. As a result, even the smaller roles don’t feel wasted.

This is the ‘X-Men’ film every fan has been waiting to see and it delivers on all fronts. It’s that one dream production that every comic book reader talks about, but figured they’d never see. Thanks to Brian Singer’s skillful and tight direction, ‘Days of Future Past’ ends up being not only the best ‘X-Men’ film, but easily one of the best comic book movies ever made. Expect this film to be talked about years later as the perfect comic book film adaptation. One can only hope this talented vision rubs off on the future tsunami of superhero films.

“Godzilla” (2014) Review

What can you expect from a Godzilla movie? The legacy of Japan’s top giant monster has had several interpretations. The mean, green machine has been the horrific creation of science gone wrong, an opponent in giant monster wrestling matches and even a hero of the people. So which route do you take? Well, this 2014 remake managed to find a way to make Godzilla the hero of the day without turning the film into a campy kaiju wrestling match. So, just to get the initial question out of the way, this is a much better film than Roland Emmerich’s 1996 disaster of a Godzilla flick. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it helps to know our country managed to do Godzilla right.

I really dug how the first act of this film keeps Godzilla aloof. We don’t even mention the iconic monster for that section outside of some quick shots from a distance in the opening credits. All we’re really told is that something is moving underground and causing havoc in the form of massive earthquakes. More importantly, we see the real human consequence of these attacks. A nuclear plant is attacked where scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) loses his wife to a dangerous radiation leak. Many years later, Joe’s son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) has joined the military service and made a family for himself. Meanwhile, Joe stays in Japan as a conspiracy theory nut stalking the quarantined disaster area of the plant. He ropes his son into his investigation where the two uncover the Japanese government has been secretly keeping a giant monster contained. And it just woke up.

The monster is dubbed MUTO and consumes energy like candy in addition to setting off EMP waves. The unstoppable creature plows through anything and can make jets fall from the sky with his abilities. The MUTO travels from Japan all the way to America to find his mate concealed by the US government. Once they meet, they plan on getting busy and having a kids with an ill-equipped military standing in their way. So where is Godzilla in all this? He’s our triumphant savior who steps in to beat the snot out of these two uglies honing in on his turf (the planet Earth). He has one brief skirmish with one of the MUTOs before the grand two-against-one brawl. And while it seemed like there was a lot of useless build up to that point, the final fight ends up being one of the best Godzilla matches of all-time.

Gareth Edwards takes a much different approach to Godzilla than any other director. Similar to what he did with his previous film Monsters, Edwards teases us with the giant monsters. You don’t see Godzilla almost an hour into the film and when you do see him it’s very brief. Godzilla shows up in Hawaii to fight one of the MUTOs, but you only see some quick news segments. Do we get a CGI disaster fest when a MUTO plows through Nevada? Nope, we only get to see the aftermath. It gets to the point where you start fuming over the lack of giant monster money shots. But, I assure you, it’s well worth the wait for the climactic clash.

The slow burn by Edwards keeps the plot interesting by only giving you a taste of the action here and there. The excuse of a human story used to get to the giant monster fights is pretty average for a disaster flick. It gains our attention right away with the whole conspiracy angle, but is swapped in the second act for delivering a nuke to the creatures. Thankfully, by that point, you’re more invested in keeping an eye out for these monsters and the quick shots of carnage they unleash. The good news is that while this is your standard tropes of the epic disaster genre it doesn’t feel as lazy or forced as Roland Emmerich’s vision of making every human comic relief.

Watching this new Godzilla gave me the satisfying experience I expected along with the new vision was hoping to see. All you need to know is that Godzilla is back, he looks great and has finally gotten the movie remake he deserves. Would you believe that American audiences would be cheering for Godzilla in the theater when he unleashes a mighty roar? It’s one of my favorite moments to be in a cinema with a crowd. Edwards may not have completely started from scratch for the Godzilla franchise, but he’s done right at making a pleasing movie for fans and newcomers alike.